PTT, Dave Unwin
Is it really quicker by air(line) than it used to be? Think again!
While racing across the Northampton skies the other month in a Cirrus SR22T (see p.54) I glanced down at the M1 and noted, without surprise, that it looked more like a car park than a motorway. It’s irrefutable; surface transport in Europe is becoming ever more impractical. The roads are reaching gridlock while the rail network is suffering from years of under-investment. Will the solution be found in the air? Well, if it is it clearly won’t be with the airlines. Primarily because of inefficiencies within the ATC system (although, incredibly, many modern jetliners are slower than their predecessors), the average time on most flights is probably greater than it was in the 1960s!
The US government appreciated this years ago, which is why NASA’S Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) programme was instigated in 2001, its goal being to use advances in avionics, computers, satellite and other technologies to exploit underused capacity at the many US airports that lack conventional instrument approaches, or even Control Towers. The idea was to provide safe, reliable, point-to-point air travel between the thousands of public-use airports in the USA — many under threat of development for other purposes — which are not served by scheduled airlines, yet are within twenty to thirty miles of 98 per cent of the country’s population. By applying emerging technologies, the simultaneous operation by multiple aircraft in non-radar airspace at and around these small non-towered, minimally-equipped airports in near all-weather conditions would become viable.
WAAS and GPS would allow lower landing minima by providing precision approach and landing guidance while avoiding land acquisition and approach lighting costs, as well as the cost of ground-based precision guidance systems such as ILS. ‘Smart’ unmanned airports would provide pilots with weather reports, operational data and traffic sequencing information automatically via datalink by means of a ground-based Airport Management Module (AMM). This would make sequencing assignments based on calculations of aircraft performance and position, winds in the terminal area, missed approach requirements, and predetermined operating rules. A cornerstone of SATS is the concept of ‘free flight’ — the ability of pilots to operate autonomously, planning and flying routes of their own choosing directly to their destinations with little or no interference from air traffic controllers, even in poor weather.
Traffic avoidance would be managed autonomously, and while controllers will still be required at very busy airfields, en-route controllers will probably go the way of the flight engineer, radio operator and navigator. As each aircraft broadcasts a continuous stream of real-time trajectory data to all other aircraft in the vicinity, should a conflict occur the FMS provides a resolution (usually a change in heading or altitude) via the HITS display, combined with synthetic vision. These new systems (most of which are already in service), could triple — or even quadruple — airspace capacity. Don’t believe me? Read the G5 flight test. Who would’ve thought that small, piston-engined fixed-gear GA aircraft would ever be fitted with glass cockpits, let alone an approach-certified IFR GPS receiver, an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transceiver, a communications datalink, cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI), and software and display graphics for self-separation and on-board conflict detection and alerting? These systems provide a ‘protective bubble’ around an aircraft by alerting pilots to other aircraft and providing resolution vectors in the event of conflicts.
For instrument approaches, the basic operational minima for a 200ft ceiling and one-half-mile visibility would be a 3,200ft-long, 60-ft-wide runway with a 3° glideslope — and there are thousands of airports in the USA that meet these minima. In fact, most US towns of any size have a municipal airport; it usually has multiple runways and often pilot-controlled lighting. It’s a tremendous resource, and an asset to the community — a fact that is just not appreciated in Europe. In the short term, it was envisaged this system would be used primarily by professionally-flown, on-demand air-taxi services flying light jets such as the Cirrus Visionjet, Eclipse 500 and Cessna Mustang, or turboprops such as the Piper M500, PC-12 and TBM900. However, for private pilots, the simplification and automation of many flight and navigational functions and procedures will inevitably trickle down to owner-flown aircraft, making IFR flight and instrument landings considerably easier.
I remember a few years ago quietly fuming in the departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport as it was announced that my flight had been delayed for ninety minutes, a period of time longer than the actual flight! If I’d had access to a personal aircraft that particular evening my passage would’ve been greatly eased. In fact, even the most cursory calculations will reveal that for many destinations in Europe I wouldn’t even need a jet, or even a turboprop to beat any scheduled service.
Because security requires a very early check-in in these troubled times, it actually took eight hours, from my Parisian hotel to my Lincolnshire home. I have a GA airfield only thirty minutes from my house, and with a Cirrus 22T I could cut my door-todoor travelling time by more than fifty per cent! Of course, for vast distances you do need a jet, but for hopping around Western Europe a fast, well equipped GA aircraft will beat the airlines more often than not. Maybe one day the Government will take this very important fact on board, and start encouraging GA, not stifling it. The railways are a joke and the roads are worse, boats do of course have their place (primarily on the water) — we need to make more use of the air! Properly used, GA could greatly alleviate the pain of travelling around Europe, and it’s high time that private aircraft were not viewed simply as toys, but also as tools. GA isn’t just about having fun on a sunny day; it is a large and dynamic business that employs thousands of people and has a great deal to offer for the future prosperity of Europe.
A fast, well equipped GA aircraft will beat the airlines...
Pilot’s Flight Test Editor operates a Jodel D.9 from a farm strip and has logged stick-time on everything from ultralights to fast jets